Eliot’s Staircase

Of the many T.S. Eliot lines that stick in the memory, the one I think of most is “Teach us to pray and not to pray. Teach us to sit still.” There is a longing for satiety in Eliot that becomes a sort of dualistic problem. The craving is constant but it is a craving specifically to overcome hunger. So the dog chases its tail.

In Eliot’s poems like “Ash Wednesday” and “The Four Quartets” this need is deep and the objective is equally deep. Can there be peace for a person so wrought up in crisis – even if that crisis takes on a “philosophical” character? (Some people would say that an intellectual crisis is not really a crisis at all, not like emotional turmoil… Can a thought disturb your peace?)

But in Eliot we have a poet who consistently returns to a search for truth even while he seems to give way to the sense that ambiguity and imperfection will always win out – not only because they stand in between the seeker and the truth but because they are probably more compelling than the truth somehow.

We always have to look sideways at any answers to the big spiritual questions. We have to allow the truth to live in the margins as an inscrutable etching, an ankle tattoo mostly covered by a pant leg. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” Eliot wrote. “That is not it. That is not what I meant at all.”

Light Boxes - River RoadThese thoughts can disturb one’s peace because they are supposed to form the basis of that peace. An image of unambiguous truth is supposed to materialize after the right question has been asked one hundred times.

In the end, the energy runs out. “Because I do not hope to turn again, I do not hope to turn,” Eliot winds down the aspirants staircase having climbed to the top and found no legible signs of what he was looking for. He will have to settle. He will have to trust that the partial image, blurry out of the corner of the eye, is resolved in itself, is full and perfect even if it is ultimately unknowable. He will have to have faith instead of truth.